The bread and butter of genealogy is what is often referred to as hatched, matched and dispatched, that is birth, marriages and deaths. These three events announce a person’s arrival into the world, the creation of a new family and our departure.
The parish registers play a key role in the recording of vital events, especially prior to civil registration in 1837. The parish registers record baptisms, which we must remember do not always immediately follow a birth, the reading of banns and of marriage and burial. Beyond the recording of the event itself which will provide key information such names, relationships, occupations, and place of residence a thoughtful incumbent or parish clerk may also add valuable nuggets of additional information. These additional comments may note the personal thoughts of the incumbent or parish clerk such as ‘bastard born son/ daughter of…’ or may be a legal requirement such as ‘buried in woollen’.
But much additional information can be found out about an individual, and their family, by looking at the gravestones that surround the church, or are in the cemetery. Information that is rarely recorded in the burial register itself, or if it is may be separate and unconnected.
For example, when I was researching the Plumb family, in Fletton, the entry in the burial register records simply:
1900 Jan 29 Plumb John Charles 56
However, in the St. Margaret’s churchyard there is a gravestone which reveals far more than John’s date of death. The gravestone for John Charles Plumb, shows a carved image of clasped hands. The inscription around the top edge of the gravestone reads:
‘Erected as a token of esteem by his companions’
By referring to the census of 1891 I discovered that John was a railway wagon repairer with the Midland Wagon Works. So, the companions mentioned, who very generously erected the gravestone, could be his work colleagues at the Midland Wagon Works.
After researching the family, I knew that John and his wife Jane had five sons. Their fourth son Edmund died on the 15th December 1916 by a gunshot to the head. Although his death was reported as ‘accidental’ to the family the inquest determined that Edmund had committed suicide by ‘a rifle shot fired by his own hand’. Edmund was buried in the Albert Communal Cemetery Extension, which was beautifully designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. He is also remembered on the St. Margaret’s World War 1 war memorial in the church.
When I visited the grave of John Charles Plumb another surprise awaited me which was unexpected. Hidden in the tangle of ivy and decaying leaves, at the foot of his father’s gravestone is a memorial to Edmund, it reads:
Edmund, son of
John Charles and Jane Plumb
Who died in France
Dec 15 1916
Beneath the memorial to Edmund lies another stone, unfortunately the writing on that is illegible. Without visiting the grave of John, I would never have discovered the memorial to Edmund, as he is not buried there it is unrecorded in the parish burial register.
Up until now the genealogist has had to rely on the tireless efforts of Family and Local History Societies to photograph and transcribe gravestones. But the Church of England has launched a major project to digitally survey 19,000 churchyards and create a free digital map of every feature and gravestone in every churchyard in the country. The project will take seven years to complete but the website is being launched in Spring 2022. More information can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-and-news/press-releases/nationwide-digital-churchyard-mapping. As well as gravestones the project will also capture biodiversity, including ancient trees and plant life, in our churchyards.
What an exciting and valuable venture.